WKU led No. 24/NR Rice at the halftime break but could not hold off a second-half charge by the regular season C-USA champion as the Owls outscored the Lady Toppers 39-27 over the final 20 minutes in a 64-57 decision on Friday evening in the C-USA Semifinals at The Ford Center at The Star.
Alexis Brewer poured in 17 points for the Lady Toppers (18-14), and Arame Niang matched her career-best with 15 points, including 3-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc. Dee Givens added eight points and pulled down 12 rebounds, her second time in the last five games with double-digit boards.
As a team, WKU shot 40 percent (22-of-55) from the floor and was 6-for-21 (28.6 percent) from three-point range. The Lady Toppers were hot from beyond the arc in the first half, knocking down five of their 11 chances (45.5 percent) in the first 20 minutes. In 18 games against C-USA competition this season, the Lady Toppers are just the second team to fall by only single digits against the Owls.
“I was really proud of our players’ effort and competitiveness. I thought we executed the game plan about as well as we could have executed it,” Head Coach Greg Collins said. “Overall, I’m really proud of how this team has grown and come together at the end of the season, and we’ll get another shot at it next year.”
Erica Ogwumike, the C-USA Player of the Year, led Rice with a double-double of 22 points and 12 rebounds, and she was joined in double figures by Sydne Wiggins (11) and Nancy Mulkey (10). Rice finished 23-of-47 (48.9 percent) from the field and knocked down six of their 18 chances (33.3 percent) from range.
Rice jumped out to an early 8-4 lead over the first four minutes of the game as Mulkey had two quick layups for the Owls, but the Lady Toppers cut back into the deficit on Meral Abdelgawad’s fast-break layup with 5:23 on the clock, making it a one-possession game midway through the first frame.
The deficit grew to as many as five points with under a minute left in the first quarter, but two layups by Niang in the final 28 seconds, including one on the fast break at the buzzer, cut Rice’s lead to just 17-15 after the first 10 minutes of play.
Ogwumike knocked down a triple to open the second quarter, but WKU took control from there. The Lady Toppers pieced together a 15-0 run that spanned nearly four minutes, with all 15 points coming from beyond the arc. Niang keyed the stretch with a trio of three-pointers, and both Brewer and Porter added one apiece as WKU surged to a 30-20 lead over the Owls.
Both teams were unable to consistently find the basket over the final four minutes of the quarter as Rice scored the final five points of the half, sending WKU into the break with a 30-25 advantage.
Rice cut WKU’s lead down to one point with two quick baskets from Mulkey and Ogwumike to start the second half before Dee Givens’ jumper at the 7:43 mark gave the Lady Toppers a bit of breathing room. Two minutes later, a three-point play from Abdelgawad again put WKU up by two possessions, taking a 35-31 lead.
A 13-0 run by the Owls that stretched into the fourth quarter proved to be the decisive stretch of the contest. Ogwumike tallied eight straight points to close the run, with her final set of free throws with 7:16 remaining putting Rice up by 10 points, 51-41, over the Lady Toppers.
Down the stretch, WKU cut the lead to six points on three different occasions, including on a Brewer triple with nine seconds left, but the Lady Toppers were unable to complete the comeback in the 64-57 defeat.
WKU will await its postseason fate on Monday evening and may earn a bid in the postseason WNIT for the 12th time in school history. In WKU’s most recent trip to the event, the Lady Toppers made a deep run to the quarterfinals following the 2015-16 campaign, knocking off Dayton, UT Martin and Saint Louis before falling to eventual champion South Dakota on the road.
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Currie P. McFayden
WKU Associate Director of Athletic Communications